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Country Interlude

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Hopper was going home to El when he spotted the blue Camaro that was pulled off to the side of a lonely, dusty back road that sometimes went for days without traffic. The road ran alongside a long stretch of farmland, and the isolated setting made the flashy car and its presumed driver look woefully out of place, two remnants of city life stranded and abandoned out in the country.

When he spotted them, Hopper made a split second decision to pull over, even though he hadn’t been planning on stopping. Steering onto the grass, he cut the engine before swinging down from his truck, fixing a skeptical gaze on the kid by the car. He’d been getting complaints all week about a Camaro and its owner, with reports varying from speeding in school zones to one very concerned senior who’d seen its teenage driver and thought he must have been a hooker from the way he was dressed.

With the situation with the Upside Down, Hopper hadn’t had the chance to find the car or the driver—Max’s stepbrother, if his information was right. But now that he’d stumbled across them both, he decided now was just as good as a time as ever to talk. And with fuck all around them, it wasn’t like there was much of a chance of getting interrupted.

He didn’t bother stubbing out his cigarette as he strode over to the kid who sat on the edge of the car’s open trunk. From all accounts, the kid was an absolute punk, so Hopper doubted he would care, and frankly, he didn’t give a damn if he did.

As he walked closer, Hopper could see that he was fiddling with something out of sight in the trunk—drugs or swag, maybe? But even though the kid hardly radiated hospitality, he also didn’t seem panicked at the sight of a cop—then again, the police stopping to talk to him was a likely pretty routine occurrence, if tales of his attitude and recklessness were anything to go by.

“Evenin’,” Hopper called out to him, because he could see the way the kid had tensed at his approach and was now watching him guardedly. It made him look some sort of goddamn wild animal that wasn’t sure how to react to the presence of a human.

“Hey,” the kid replied coolly, his head turned away from Hopper as he rummaged in the car trunk. “Can I help you, Officer . . .?”

“Chief,” Hopper informed him, letting an edge harden his voice. “Chief Jim Hopper. And you are?”

“Billy Hargrove,” he replied, turning to fully look at him. “It’s a pleasure.” He wore an insolent smile when he spoke, but that wasn’t Hopper’s main concern.

The sight of the other side of the kid’s face, or more accurately, the damage to it, had Hopper biting back a curse. He looked like he’d gone ten rounds in the ring with Ali and then been stupid enough to go back for a few more. Swelling had already started, and blood was still trickling out of numerous cuts and scrapes that littered his skin from forehead to jaw. Someone had whaled on this kid—Billy—long and hard.

“Been in a fight?” Hopper inquired, making sure to keep his voice casual. He wanted conversation, he wanted Billy to talk. The more Billy talked, the more Hopper had on him and could use against him—or if he needed to, someone else.

He was betting on some kind of wiseass response, some of the shit high schoolers said to make themselves look cool by mouthing off. Instead, Billy broke eye contact and popped open a first aid kit—it was what he’d been playing with when Hopper had walked over.

“Yeah,” Billy said without elaborating.

He was clearly lying. As Hopper watched him rip open a packet of gauze and withdraw a bottle of hydrogen peroxide, he could see there were no marks of any kind on his fingers. If he had been in a fight, there would be fresh cuts to his hands just like there were on his face, the skin on his knuckles scraped away by the force of his punches. But there were none.

Then there was the state of his clothing. His mostly unbuttoned shirt was perfectly intact and his form-fitting stonewashed jeans were free from any grass or dirt stains. If he had really in the kind of knock-down, drag-out fight that would have had to have happened to make his face the three different colors it was, his clothes would show it. Yet other than making the kid look like the hooker old Mrs. Spunkelcrief had mistaken him for, his clothes seemed absolutely fine.

No one had fought with this kid, Hopper was sure of it. Someone had just grabbed him and hit him again and again, until he’d run off to the middle of nowhere, where Hopper had found him.

“So, we finished here, or what?” Billy gave him what Hopper imagined was intended as a smirk, but it didn’t come naturally—there was too much effort behind it. It ended up making him look more insecure than tough.

“Not quite,” Hopper told him, plunking down beside him on the back of the car. Billy went rigid at the close proximity, but Hopper didn’t let on that he noticed, instead motioning at the peroxide. “Here, give that to me. I’ll take care of your face for you.”

Billy eyed him, suspicion glinting in his gaze, and in the moment, Hopper was reminded of someone with ferocious intensity, but he couldn’t quite figure out who.

“Whatever you want,” Billy eventually muttered, surrendering the gauze and the bottle.

Taking the items from him, Hopper set to work disinfecting his wounds. The kid never flinched at the harsh chemicals, even though he must have felt the sharp sting. Instead, he watched Hopper with an unfailing vigilance, always subtly shifting away whenever Hopper made a move toward him.

Well, if Hop had ever had the slightest doubt that it was Billy’s dad who had knocked him around, it was gone now.

“It’s not that I mind patching you up, kid,” he told Billy as he finished with the peroxide and reached for the kit to snag a few band-aids. “But I don’t really want to have to end up doing it again.”

“Yeah, well, we all have to do things we don’t want to do sometimes, Chief,” Billy retorted.

“There’s truth to that,” Hopper agreed, bringing the kid to look at in surprise. He’d probably been anticipating Hopper popping him one in the mouth for the smartass response. “So, if you ever need me to do this for you again, I’ll still help you.”

“Don’t go feeling goddamn sorry for me,” Billy warned him, more than a hint of a snarl in his voice.

“Why should I feel sorry for you?” Hopper returned. “After all, you got your face torn up in a fight, isn’t that right? You must have known what you were getting into.”

Billy just clenched his jaw and said nothing as Hopper, moving with an uncommon gentleness, pressed butterfly closures across the cuts on his face. Head wounds, even minor ones, bled a whole damn lot, and these bandages would do a better job of keeping them closed than the regular kind.

“’Course, if you didn’t get hurt in a fight, I’d be all ears,” Hopper told him, snapping the first aid kit closed and handing it back to Billy. “I’d be, uh, real interested in hearing about it.”

“Sure.” Billy accepted the kit and moved to stow it away in a black backpack.

When he did, Hopper caught sight of purple and white fabric peeking out of one of the backpack’s pockets. He couldn’t tell what kind of clothing it was, but he did notice that it bore the word Lakers in capital block letter patches that had been painstakingly sewn on.

“I can’t find my Lakers jacket,” he’d overheard Max huff to Will weeks ago when they’d both found themselves over at the Byers house. “My mom made it for me, and it’s my favorite. I bet Billy took it and hid it just to be a dick.”

Now, as he watched Billy rearrange the items in his backpack to make room for the first aid kit, removing and then replacing a few pairs of jeans and a pink t-shirt that most certainly did not belong to him, Hopper had to give the kid credit. Billy Hargrove was no Boy Scout, that was for damn sure, but he definitely was prepared, ready to run and take Max with him if he ever needed to.

But ultimately, it was just another glaring indication that Billy and Max’s home life wasn’t what it should be.

“I mean it,” Hopper stressed, wanting to make it clear that he wasn’t anything like the good-for-nothing father this kid probably had. “You want to talk? I’ll listen.”

Billy gave a dark chuckle at that. “Yeah, I bet.”

If there was one thing Hopper had little patience for, it was people doubting his competence, especially after all that he’d endured to keep the town safe. “ Hey. I’m serious here, you got that?” He snagged Billy’s arm, but then immediately regretted it when he saw the raw fear that flashed across his face. Again, he was struck by the notion that he’d seen that same kind of look before, on someone he knew and knew well, but no person immediately leapt to mind. Not like it mattered, really. That similarity wasn’t important at the moment; he had other matters that needed his attention right now.

Taking his hand off the kid, Hopper withdrew one of the several business cards he kept in his pocket. Flo had ordered them for him a while back. While he’d scoffed the idea at the time, given all the general weirdness in Hawkins that he’d needed to stay informed about for the past year, they had since more than proved their worth.

He quickly flipped over the card and jotted down his home phone number before offering it to Billy.

“If you ever want to talk anytime, either about your fight,” he gestured at Billy’s face, “or something else, or even just, I don’t know, high school bullshit, I’ll listen to you. Okay?”

Billy sent him a long, searching look, probably trying gauge his sincerity, but Hopper must have passed inspection, because he ultimately accepted the card.

“Thanks, Chief,” he said, a corner of his mouth tugging up in a ghost of an actual smile. “I’ll keep that in mind.”

It was only a small victory, Hopper knew. Just because Billy took the card didn’t mean the kid would ever call him. He might be stay stubborn and refuse to admit that he needed help, which, Hopper thought, his stomach twisting unpleasantly, could easily get him killed by that father of his.

But as he watched Billy carefully slide the card into one of the smaller side pockets of the backpack, he couldn’t help but feel that he had made some kind of progress.

Hopper rose from the car. “I’m heading out. But I’m just a phone call away. Remember that.”

Billy nodded without speaking and remained where he was as Hopper drove off to go home to El. With a sigh, Hopper watched him grow smaller and smaller in his rearview mirror. He’d pay a call on the Hargrove-Mayfield family the next day, he resolved. He would introduce himself, officially welcome them to Hawkins, and try to get a feel for exactly what was going on in that house. He was almost entirely sure he already knew, but absolute certainty would let him begin to fix the problem.

And he would be lying if he said he wasn’t hoping to be proven wrong, for nothing other than Billy and Max’s sake

Billy Hargrove was still weighing heavily on his thoughts even when he walked through the front door and found El waiting for him. A keen observer, she immediately noticed he seemed preoccupied.

“Rough day to-day?” she asked, carefully enunciating each syllable as she repeated a line Hopper had told her more than once before.

“Yeah,” Hopper said, running a hand through his hair as he turned to face El. “Yeah, it was—”

He’d been struggling to explain his stress in a way El would understand, but when he looked at her directly, the breath caught in his lungs.  

Suddenly, he knew who it was that Billy Hargrove had reminded him of: El. The look in Billy’s eyes, the exhausted wariness, the constant distrust, the habitual fear that almost overwhelmed the desperate hope—all of that had been plain on El’s face the first night she’d approached him in the woods.

“Jim?” El’s expression became worried as he stared at her wordlessly, and she reached out to touch his arm. “Okay?”

At his daughter’s concern, Hopper broke out of his trance and drew El into a tight hug. “I’m fine, kiddo. Just real glad you’re here with me, s’all.”

Even as he held El, though, he couldn’t help but wonder what kind of greeting Billy would get from his father when he returned home that night.